People v. Billy Corgan
People magazine certainly has its place in popular culture, perhaps best as a representative of general “mainstream” opinion. In the issue published on July 16, 2007, Chuck Arnold writes a review of the Smashing Pumpkins’ new album Zeitgeist. In his review, he makes three main points: “it’s not a real reunion” (the original Pumpkins disbanded in 1997), “it’s not much better than 2005’s lackluster TheFutureEmbrace” (Billy Corgan’s solo album), and “you’re better off dusting off Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness” (Time Magazine’s “album of the year” in 1995).
After reading Lawrence Grossberg’s article, “Reflections of a Disappointed Popular Music Scholar,” I hope not to prove Mr. Arnold “wrong,” but to demonstrate why all of his claims are actually correct, but that it doesn’t diminish the effect of this new Pumpkin’s album.
First: “it’s not a real reunion.” This is true. The new Smashing Pumpkin’s album features only original vocalist/guitarist Corgan and drummer Jimmy Chamberlain (original guitarist Jimmy Iha and bassist D’arcy Wretzky are not members of the reformed band). Why this is ok: in Rock, “image” is everything. According to Grossberg, “image and style have always been a crucial part of rock” (38). Most people would not deny the fact that Billy Corgan represents the image of the Smashing Pumpkins. This means that the other original members are not required to fulfill the realization of the band. I would like to second this opinion with a fact pointed out in RollingStone.com’s review of this album: on the Pumpkin’s album Siamese Dream (1993), Corgan performed and recorded Iha’s and Wretzky’s parts anyway (posted by David Fricke on 7/18/07). On the other hand, it couldn’t be the Pumpkins without Corgan.
Second: “it’s not much better than 2005’s lackluster TheFutureEmbrace.” This is a very subjective claim, but at least in terms of comparative record sales is most likely true. The number of albums sold by either Corgan or the Pumpkins has certainly declined since the end of the 90’s. Why this is ok: the possibility of rock has changed since the 90’s anyway. According to Grossberg, popular music scholars still haven’t completely figured out what happened to American culture because of rock in the 90’s. This leads to the tendency to apply categories to music that are less-than-appropriate (43). The fact that the Pumpkin’s are still labeled as “Alternative Rock” (even by Mr. Arnold) shows that popular culture has not quite caught up to where music is now. “Alternative Rock” emerged in the 80’s and early 90’s; it’s now 2007 – 16 years since the first Pumpkin album (a debate over what Alternative Rock is even “alternative” to anymore is a completely different discussion). It is not surprising that these last two albums would sound more similar to each other than to previous albums (even though TheFutureEmbrace is better categorized as “electronic/industrial rock” than “alternative rock”).
Third: “you’re better off dusting off Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness.” This point follows Arnold’s former claim and my previous rebuttal. Apparently, the Pumpkins were “better” in 1995. Why this is ok: why do I want my Pumpkins to sound exactly like they did 15 years ago? Grossberg describes this as “residual” versus “dominant” (45-47). Once upon a time, the Smashing Pumpkins were an active part of the mainstream. However, this mainstream died-out for the most part by the end of 1994 (with the demise of Grunge music and the death of Kurt Cobain). If you want to listen to mainstream “dominant” Pumpkins, you have to listen to an album that was produced during that era (ie Mellon Collie). Today, I feel as though the Pumpkins represent a more “residual” band: “established in the past but still vital in the present, often in opposition to the current dominant culture” (46). This just proves my point that it’s a good thing that the Pumpkins aren’t selling as many albums: they are still the alternative to current dominant musical trends (begging the question: can “rock” be “pop” and still be representative of rock ideals?). The Pumpkins still epitomize rock even if they aren’t popular anymore.
In conclusion, it seems as though the People want their Pumpkins to be exactly what they were 15 years ago. Ironically enough, even if they were, my guess is that People wouldn’t like them any better because that’s what popular music sounded like 15 years ago, not today. This response to the Chuck Arnold review was not an attempt to claim that Zeitgeist is the best album ever. Instead, it was an effort to prove that the review was totally accurate, but ought to have been presented as a positive review rather than a negative one.
According to Webster’s College Dictionary, zeitgeist means “spirit of the times, a general trend of thought or feeling characteristic of a particular period of time.” Seems like the perfect title for what the Pumpkins have accomplished with this album.